COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — Residents were fleeing and law enforcement was beefed up Monday in the border towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, after polygamous leader Warren Jeffs stripped about 20 followers of their families and priesthoods.
Although state and county officials in Utah reported that the neighboring towns, where most of the 6,000 residents practice polygamy, seemed calm after the weekend purge and the abrupt resignation of Colorado City’s longtime mayor, other outsiders heard rumblings of trouble.
“This might be the lull before the storm and it’s very quiet,” said Robert Curran of Help the Child Brides, a St. George organization that opposes underage polygamous marriages and is monitoring the situation.
The weekend shake-up prompted several young adults to leave the communities and he expects more to follow, Curran said. Help the Child Brides and the Dove Center, a St. George shelter for victims of domestic abuse, can help them, but he fears what will happen to the underage children who try to leave. Legally, Help the Child Brides cannot shelter juveniles, he said.
“It’s just pretty uncertain,” Curran said. “Our main concern is for those wonderful families.”
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Pennie Petersen, who left Colorado City almost 30 years ago rather than get married at age 14 to a much older man, said she knows of girls on the run from her hometown.
“There’s a couple that just left yesterday,” she said in a telephone interview from her Phoenix home. “These kids can feel the turmoil. I worry about the girls. If they’re over 15, they’ll be married off.”
She said Jeffs’ actions were part of a power struggle in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. At a meeting Saturday in Colorado City, Jeffs excommunicated the men — including Mayor Dan Barlow — and ordered them to leave the community without their wives and children. On Sunday, Barlow turned in his resignation, ending his nearly 20 years as the top elected official in Colorado City.
The action followed months of conflict between Jeffs and some FLDS members. The tension increased in late July when a museum and monument commemorating the 1953 Short Creek raid — in which Arizona authorities raided the town to enforce laws against polygamy — were dedicated without Jeffs’ approval. The prophet ordered the monument destroyed about a month later, according to Colorado City teacher Deloy Bateman, who is not an FLDS member.
The inscription on the granite monument proclaimed: “The Prophet Leroy S. Johnson stood on this site with the people and met the raiding police officers. He later declared the deliverance of the people in 1953 was one of the greatest miracles of all time.”
Jeffs became leader of the FLDS Church after the death of Rulon T. Jeffs in 2002. The sect is an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which condemns plural marriage.
Curran said the excommunicated men included a son, three brothers and a nephew of Dan Barlow and four brothers of Warren Jeffs.
On Monday, city offices in Colorado City seemed almost vacant. Town Clerk Kevin Barlow, nephew of the former mayor, said the seven-member council will appoint one of its members to serve out Barlow’s term, which expires in May.
Kevin Barlow had little to say on Saturday’s events.
“I’m not going to talk about it,” he said. “I don’t talk about it. Personally, it is sacred to me.”
Other Colorado City residents also had nothing to say about the purge and its aftermath. Jeffs and Dan Barlow could not be reached for comment.
In Hildale, city offices were locked Monday afternoon, but earlier in the day, Mayor David Zitting said residents were taking the news of the excommunications calmly.
“It’s Monday morning, and we’re just going on,” he said.
The sheriff on the Utah side of the border also reported no trouble in the area.
“Everything’s calm and quiet,” Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith said. “We’ve received no complaints. We encourage any residents of Hildale who have complaints to call us.”
Smith said adjoining Mohave County, Ariz., also was quiet. The sheriff’s offices in the two counties provide backup for each other in the border communities.
But Flora Jessop, another Phoenix resident who fled her polygamous family in Colorado City when she was a teenager, described the situation as chaotic.
“A lot of residents are expecting it to end in blood,” said Jessop, who keeps in touch with residents in the polygamous communities. “Neither side can back down at this point.”
Jessop predicts some wives will follow their excommunicated husbands, while others will stay and be assigned new husbands by Jeffs. She has heard that some of the teenage daughters already were being married off.
“Everyone is saying that it’s just another day in Colorado City,” she said. “It’s a tragedy for the kids.”
Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson said residents have called and e-mailed him telling him that the situation is tense.
“The mayor stepping down was a surprise to me,” he said. “That shocked me quite a bit.”
Curran fears the worst could happen. He said Jeffs has fortified his compound in Hildale, and there are rumors that he is building another one in Mexico.
“It’s hard to believe that the Barlows will go along with the prophet,” he said. “We’re afraid there’ll be another Waco.”